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Wiping out teachers' student loan debt

PERSONAL FINANCE

Programs abound for educators who need help paying off their loans, but the requirements can be narrow and just finding them is a chore.

February 14, 2010|Kathy M. Kristof | Personal Finance

If you are a teacher in debt, there's good news and bad news.

There are literally dozens of programs that could potentially help wipe out your student loans. But most of them have narrow requirements that may lock you out.

Just ask Troy Dale, a high school counselor from Ellis, Kan. He and his wife have $23,000 in student loans that they've been paying down for nearly a decade. At their current rate, they'll still be paying off their student debts when their oldest child enrolls in college.

That realization sent Dale on a wide-ranging search to find some sort of debt forgiveness plan that could help his family. He found plenty of programs, including a national debt forgiveness program for public service workers and one specifically for schoolteachers.

But in each case, he missed the qualification standards by a fraction. To qualify, Dale and his wife, Jessica, would either have to teach different subjects or switch schools.

"It's really frustrating that there is just nothing out there for us," Dale said. "We're not exactly knocking the top of the roof off with our salaries."

Though Dale was frustrated, he did what every teacher and public service employee ought to do. He kept looking, said Edie Irons, communications director for the Institute for College Access and Success.

There are an ever-expanding number of programs that can help some indebted graduates pay off their loans, but the programs aren't necessarily widely advertised or understood. You have to search for them.

"There is still a lot of outreach that needs to be done," Irons said. "You shouldn't have to go on a treasure hunt to find them. But there is no national repository of all this information."

What programs are available for the nation's 3.5 million school teachers?

Public service debt forgiveness: The most widely available program pays off remaining debt for those who have already worked in a public service profession for 10 years while paying down their debt. The catch? You must pay on your loans for 10 years while working in a qualifying profession. If you quit your qualifying job at nine years and 11 months, you're out of luck. And if you're able to pay off your debts completely in 10 years, you also don't get any help.

This program provides only back-end help that kicks in after you've followed all the rules for 10 full years, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com.

Still, the program could be invaluable if you are highly indebted and committed to public service work -- whether that's being a public defender, a teacher or a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. If you qualify, every dollar of federal student debt that remains after 10 years is wiped out.

Who qualifies: anyone who works for the government -- state, federal or local; employees of nonprofit organizations operating under tax code section 501(c)(3), and those who work for the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. In addition, if you provide services to the disabled, work in early-childhood education or public service law, you may also qualify, even if you work for a for-profit company. More information: www.IBRinfo.org.

Federal Perkins loan cancellation: This program, which pays off Perkins loans over five years, is specifically designed for teachers who serve low-income families or who teach specific subjects or populations, such as special-needs students.

The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of public school districts in low-income neighborhoods, which you can find at www.tcli.ed.gov. (TCLI stands for Teacher Cancellation Low Income.)

If your school is not in a low-income district, you may still qualify for the program if you teach learning-disabled students or teach certain subjects full time, including math, science, a foreign language or bilingual education.

If you qualify, this program will pay off 100% of your Perkins loans (they're a specific type of student loan offered to needy students) over a five-year period. It eliminates 15% of your loan balance in the first year; another 15% in the second year; 20% in the third and fourth years; and the final 30% in year five.

Stafford loan forgiveness: If you have Stafford loans (the most common type of student loan), there's a separate program that can pay off up to $17,500 of your loan balance.

Many of the qualifications are similar to the Perkins cancellation program. However, if you don't teach in a low-income school, the requirements are a bit stricter about what you're teaching and how well you're qualified, Kantrowitz said.

In simple terms, this means that you must be state-certified and teaching in the subject area that you studied. In some cases, you also must pass a test.

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